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Peter Blake: Man of Letters and Alphabet Art

  • 3 min read

From the early 20th century to today, modern artists have used the familiar ABC book as a point of departure for diverse themes. Sir Peter Blake is the latest artist to explore the art of the alphabet, creating a feast of typographic encounters in his portfolio of prints ‘Appropriated Alphabets’.

The grandee of British Art has appropriated the literary rudiments to produce twelve Alphabets, created and sourced from his beloved collection of found printed ephemera. Blake’s interest in letters and typography began whilst studying Art at Gravesend Technical College (1949-51); he received a traditional grounding in crafts such as Roman lettering, hand lettering and typesetting. His fascination with font was already established by the time he had completed a year of a National Diploma in Graphic Design, just prior to the Royal Collage in 1953. This formal training has permeated his work throughout his career, with text frequently becoming an integral element or even the subject of a piece.

In the 1950s, Blake began using ‘found letters’ or commercial lettering in his work, as well as found printed materials such as comic strips and advertising texts, allying himself with sign painters, decorators, and commercial artists. Declaring himself a ‘pop’ artist, he joined the ranks of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, in their provocation of the fine art establishment.

Blake’s work reflects his fascination with all streams of popular culture, and the beauty to be found in everyday objects. ‘Appropriated Alphabets’ is both a tour de force of printmaking, with its matt and gloss glazes, gold leaf, embossing, collage and metallic inks, as well as a summation of so many of his concerns. Thematically, the alphabets indulge Blake's passion for collecting letters. ‘Appropriated Alphabets 3’ is compiled from the first letter of Font names Blake is particularly attracted to, whilst ‘Appropriated Alphabets 5’ is a ‘meta-alphabet’, a playfully self-referential stencil of Blake’s favourite typeface ‘Stencil’.

The alphabet provides a limitation which requires the work to be rigorous and restrained, and compliments Blake’s great skill in editing. In an interview Blake declared, “I love lists… And I love things that have a beginning and a very specific ending.” In a sense the alphabet is a beautiful list, with a beginning and an end, from which unlimited creativity can flow. Blake has created several works based around the alphabet during his career, including his 1991 Pop Culture Alphabet and his 2007 Nursery Collage Alphabet.

Blake’s interest in the foundation blocks of language can be linked to the exploration of childhood innocence and nostalgia that imbues his work. There is a spirit of sentimentality, reminiscence and innocence running throughout the portfolio. It is a subtly personal collection, ‘Appropriated Alphabets 2’, for example, is a bus ticket that Peter Blake collected from a trip to Utah, when visiting his daughter Liberty. The beautiful childlike quality is almost an evocation of a paradise lost.

Last year the MOMA held a group exhibition ‘Alphabets/ Heaps of Language’, which brought together contemporary artists all of whom concentrate on the material qualities of language. The works belonged to a distinguished history of alphabet experiments that dates to the beginnings of modernism, and includes both Dada and Futurist moments, as well as a recrudescence in the late 1950s.

Brad Faine has created an alphabetical homage to the history of art in his giclee and silkscreen print ‘Art Malarkey II’. The piece combines elements of the works of some of Faine’s favourite artists with an alphabet of their surnames. Each circular image contains two renowned artworks by abstract artists such as Joseph Albers and Marc Chagall, while the text is comprised of two alphabets, one from A to Z and the other from Z to A. The alphabet is synonymous with Faine’s structured and systematic artistic style.

'Alphabet' by artist, designer and illustrator Eric Ravilious reveals an interest in typography and the relationship between language and image from as early as 1937. Whilst contemporary artist Helen Lang’s colourful and gently humours alphabets prove that the subject continues to fascinate artists today. When discussing her successful ‘Animalphabet', ‘Musicalphabet’, and ‘London A-Z’ prints, Lang said “I just love the alphabet and find it a typographical challenge to pick a theme and manipulate the lettering to fit this theme.”

Peter Blake, the father of British Pop, proves that the alphabet should not be limited to children’s educational books or the nursery walls, but can be appropriated to produce visually stunning artworks which are also fascinating records of modern culture, nostalgic adventures, and artists’ historic experiments with language.

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